Director Commentary Collection - Archive
Commentary by Thomas Newkirk, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire and former director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. These pieces originally appeared in Education Week.
There is an old saying, “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” It’s good advice for us teachers, I think, because it is well documented that we talk too much. When students do speak, there is often a recitation pattern that goes like this: (1) Teacher asks question; (2) student is recognized by the teacher; (3) student answers; and (4) teacher evaluates the answer of the student. Then on to the next question, the next student.
Years ago, my family enjoyed playing a “Sesame Street” record in which a king was so grateful when the fire department put out a royal fire that he declared everyone in his kingdom would be a fireman. Of course, problems arose: There was no one to cook his meals because everyone was a fireman. The moral, I suppose, was that we need different professions, something the king eventually realized. But I loved the magical bravado of the king’s just declaring everyone a fireman—and it happened.
Until fairly recently, psychologists accepted the commonsense view that job stress was directly related to the significance of the decisions being made. The top executive jobs, by this logic, were the most stressful because so much was riding on decisions. And the lower-level positions—the clerks, custodial workers, and receptionists—were less stressful because decisions had less impact. There was less to worry about. All this made a kind of sense. But it was exactly wrong.
There's an old Roman insult that goes like this: "He can't read or swim." The presumption is that just about anyone who applied himself (or herself) could learn these skills. Indeed, many countries with high literacy rates, such as Japan, are successful in teaching children to read without all the angst and sense of crisis so common in the United States.
To the Editor: In his Nov. 2, 2005, letter to the editor concerning my Commentary, ("‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism," Oct. 12, 2005), Ronald Fitzgerald terms my argument “superficial,” “unfair,” and “destructively reactionary.” Yet he fails to engage the argument I have made.
"Brain research” is everywhere these days. Teachers are bombarded with claims about “brain-based learning” at conferences, where they are regularly invited to view photo imaging of cerebral blood flow. Gender differences in learning are explained by variations in the cortical activity of boys and girls. And typically this research, or so proponents claim, can lead to clear implications for teaching. It often seems a short step from blood-flow studies to single-sex schools.
The focus should be on showing what writing does, not on itemizing the 'traits' it has. We don't hear much about pleasure in this era of reform. The focus is on research-based instruction, on standards, rubrics, and prompts, and on the supposedly increasing literacy demands of the Information Age—all of which are discussed in the feverish language of cultural crisis.
Near the beginning of the film "Dead Poets Society," the English teacher played by Robin Williams forces his students to read aloud from the absurd preface to their anthology. Works of literature, the preface states, can be evaluated by graphing two qualities: importance and execution. Midway through the reading, Mr. Williams' character tells his students to rip out the offending pages. Art can never be so mechanically reduced.